So You Want To/Write a High Fantasy
High Fantasy! The adventures on an epic scale of good and evil in imaginary worlds, filled with magic, dragons, and no more than medieval tech! Where the young person finds the MacGuffin and defeats the Evil Overlord and saves the world!
You may want to also read Write a Heroic Fantasy—the lines between that subgenre and this one are not fixed in concrete.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
- Setting - A world other than ours. It may have a nominal connection with present day Earth, such as being our remote past or future, but this plays no role in the plot. Mythopoeia is often put into play to define the very metaphysics of the world. Nevertheless it often resembles medieval Europe.
- Scale - Epic. Power politics, wars, the death of nations, gods walking the earth, and the real threat of The End of the World as We Know It—which is why the genre is also known as epic fantasy.
- The Big Bad is the Evil Overlord and really, really, really bad. He tends to be not so much a man as a personification of some evil and destructive force.
- Winning by sheer brute force is more typical of Heroic Fantasy. The MacGuffin or some such piece of magic is commonly needed, though usually a fair amount of sneaking is needed.
- Functional Magic
- Five Races. Most Heroic Fantasies will be stocked to the brim with non-human races, but for the most part the classic human-elf-dwarf-hobbit/gnome-orc/troll quintet is the most common.
Or not. Chose the races you want. Or invent your own. You can even chose no non-humans at all -- People of Hair Color is common to tell humans apart—or no humans.
- Dragons. There will most likely be dragons. If you do include dragons in your story, there are a lot of necessary decisions to make. Are the sentient? Do they breathe fire? Do they bring rain? Do they hoard treasure? Are they Always Lawful Good, Exclusively Evil, or does it vary based on individual? Are they descended from dinosaurs? Do people ride them? And honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
- Farm Boy saves the day! But the danger is that it can be too contrived. The innocent young hero has many virtues, but you have make convincing reasons why he happens to be the one to do it.
- Secret Legacy. The Farm Boy often turns out to have Royal Blood and be the sole heir to the throne. Making it plausible that someone who's never been off the farm for his childhood can actually rule a kingdom is rather difficult.
- The MacGuffin and the Plot Coupons. High Fantasy is notorious for having these work as Plot Devices. Disguise them well if you use them.
- Because Destiny Says So. Too many writers use a prophecy as a substitute for Character Development.
- Making Races of Hats. All too often fantasy setting have dwarves be... exactly alike, elves be stuck up snobs,
Hobbitshalflings be child-like or tricksters, and such. While Tolkien did show there were different kinds of people in each race in the manual, others have copied these designs to the point where they have become cliche. Nowhere in nature is there an entire race of stuck up snobs (well, maybe cats). This is easily avoided if you are making races from scratch, but if you are using mythical races, showing races aren't all clones of one person (that is, unless they are all clones of one person) is a good idea.
"even in the most toxic culture, someone will choose decency".
- Because Destiny Says So is the commonest reason why the Farm Boy has to succeed. Developing other reasons can work. Perhaps the littlest wizard has to do the job because all the more powerful ones were massacred.
- Morals. Black and White Morality is common. But shades of gray among the heroes often work. (Lighting up the Evil Overlord generally moves you out of the genre entirely.)
- Revolt! the Orcs and/or Beastmen are bloody sick of being herded off to die in their thousands, and it's time for a change! Who is this upstart champion of the downtrodden and musclebound? None other than your main character!
- War! An Evil Overlord bent on world domination is razing every kingdom in his wake. The heroes must unite the ever-bickering races of the world to stand against him!
- Because of the traditional high stakes, the Reluctant Hero works well; the most home-loving hero can tell he has to move if the world will be destroyed without it. Note that if you lower the stakes, the motivations have to change.
- Well, for a heroic quest, you might go with Heterosexual Life Partners, the Power Trio, the Four-Girl Ensemble, the Five-Man Band....
- A Five-Man Band is the most common way to arrange the protagonists, oftentimes so that each member of the cast is one of the Five Races.